MSO’s dark Bluebeard, sunny Mozart
Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, an odd-duck 1917 opera for two singers and a massive orchestra, isn’t performed very often.
The libretto is based on a murky, creepy folk tale stretched into vintage psychodrama. The music is closer to Richard Strauss and Debussy than to Bartok’s signature string quartets. The opera is in Hungarian, not the favorite language of opera singers, and it requires singers with huge, dramatic voices and expert musicianship. Such people are in short supply. At 66 minutes in one act, Bluebeard is awkward to program. It is expensive to put together, difficult to play and conventional wisdom would call it a hard sell. Which explains why the Milwaukee Symphony, in its 50 seasons, had never performed Bluebeard’s Castle.
But there it was in Uihlein Hall on Halloween night, getting a brilliant MSO performance and wild ovation from a big crowd.
The widely publicized presence of Dale Chihuly’s glass sculptures, made for a Seattle Symphony Bluebeard in 2007, had a lot to do with filling all those seats. Everyone knows the Chihuly piece in the Milwaukee Art Museum. Many art insiders think it’s kitschy, but the public at large loves it.
The opera’s action is simple: Bluebeard and Judith, his new wife, walk through this creepy old castle. She insists that he open seven locked doors. The first is a torture chamber, in Chihuly’s mind a set of vertical bars red as branding irons. Next comes an armory of fearsome weapons, that is, a violent tangle of barbed and pointed oranges, reds and yellows — the very picture of the electric tangle of martial brasses in the orchestra.
The torture and violence have earned Bluebeard a treasure trove of pearl-white rods that turn to gold before our eyes as the music shimmers; an opulent garden of man-sized lilies whose petals could be hungry mouths; and a vast domain of luminescent purple trees ribboned with miraculously delicate glass banners.
The music built to each revelation, driven by sometimes heated and sometimes affectionate exchanges between soprano Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet and bass-baritone Andrea Silvestrelli. They possess the massive, ardent voices Bartok’s opera needs, and they know how to use them.
This through-composed opera is not about tunes. Dramatic thrust is the thing, the powerful gesture, the convincing speech rhythm. I was glad to have the supertitles, but I could almost have done without them, such was the clarity of the singers’ inflection and phrasing. (Also, the words are minimal: Open the door. No. Open the door; I love you. Well, OK, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
Bartok also carries the meaning in a score crackling with tone painting, and not only in terms of illustrating what’s behind the doors. The music is a groaning, roiling, creaking, bubbling thing that suggests that the castle itself is alive and evil. Even when Bluebeard’s jewels enchant us with their shimmer, some snarling tremolo or dark dissonance is grinding in the guts of the orchestra.
The MSO sounded as if it had played Bluebeard’s Castle as a specialty; such was its command of a score that barely goes three bars without changing meter. To play this piece as they did for the very first time is a great tribute to music director Edo de Waart. He exactly understood the drama here and drove it patiently or furiously to its many climaxes. He arranged those climaxes to peak absolutely when Bluebeard’s three previous victims/wives are revealed to Judith. Along the way, he made clear and specific Bartok’s torrent details, his wonders of sonority, color and imagery.
Bartok’s opera was night; Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat was day. The pleasure here lay in the utter clarity of rhythm, texture and pitch and the bright energy of this performance. Ilana Setapen, the new associate concertmaster, and veteran principal violist Robert Levine were featured in this 30-minute double concerto. They gave endless delight as they played like old pals, in perfect tandem in one moment and, in the next, finishing each other’s statements with unbroken agreement and grace.
This program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 31. Tickets at the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.
Other reviews: Elaine Schmidt